By Dr. Angel Kwolek-Folland
Moments of change encourage us to reflect, and I’m grateful for this space in which to look back on my experience of our shared women’s studies project. As an historian, looking back is what I do, so this is a sweet spot.
I taught my first class in the fall of 1980. Those students are now in their 60s. They made careers and families. One died too young. Most are lost to me. But in many ways, they were the same students we have now in our Women’s Studies classrooms: seeking, aware, grateful and surprised to find courses that address directly their most pressing questions: Where do I come from and where am I going? How can I make life better for myself and others? I think I helped some of them grow, and I know some of them changed me.
The times we live in seem so turbulent, as though so much that is good is eroding. Our students are frustrated, sometimes angry. This is where history and reflection are useful, not as a balm but as a goad. I found that my students often imagine history as a line of steady upward progress—we are going to the high of Point Z somewhere in the perfect future, having started at the low of Point A in some dark state of un-civilization. This is understandable, given how popular culture structures our historical narrative. But I tell students that history is more like the ridgeline of the Sierra Nevada mountains (my California roots showing): peaks and valleys all the way. And we, if we choose to engage in the work of change, are Sisyphus.
Fortunately for our ability to hope, the history of women is full of examples of creativity, resilience, and leadership. As illustration there is Catalina de Erauso, La Mona Alférez (the Lieutenant Nun), whose autobiography details the exploits of a 16th century Basque woman in New Spain. At a time when well-bred women were mothers or nuns, Erauso adopted the dress and personality of a man and adventured her way across two continents. Or closer to home, Melverina Elverina Peppercorn and Rosetta/Lyons Wakeman, who joined the Confederate and Union armies, respectively, by dressing as men to fight in the American Civil War. They are emblematic of many women (and girls—Melverina was 16) prior to the advent of identity tracking who dealt with the limitations of woman’s sphere by joining men’s—for reasons patriotic, monetary, or just for the sheer excitement of living in the wider world.
It would not do to oversimplify the past, and for every successful Catalina there were women and men who were burdened by legal and economic cultures that ground them down. But there are several lessons here. First, when I began graduate school it was still possible to read everything that had been written on the history of women; that is now impossible. People like Catalina, Melverina, and Rosetta were unknown. The work of reconstructing the lives of women in the past has been monumental and is ongoing. It is work that responds to its times, asking and answering current questions as a corrective to and expansion of what we understand about our present. Second, although it may not be what students want to hear, it is clear we cannot be complacent, we cannot assume that we are permanently on top of the peak or permanently in Death Valley. The Greeks were right about Sisyphus—struggling uphill is the human condition. What we need are tools to push our rock effectively. To that end, and finally, it is up to each of us to choose what work we will do that keeps the stones moving up the mountain. So long as we have the peak in our sights and keep our face to the light, we can make a difference.
To all of my colleagues in Women’s Studies and History, and to the approximately 4,000 students I worked with since 1980, thank you for your individual struggles up the mountain, for all the work you do to make us whole.