“WWHP and Community Memory”

For the WWHP 15th Anniversary Dinner Worcester State University Blue Lounge Friday 10/22/10


The Worcester Women’s History Project has not just survived for 15 years, it has thrived and changed and grown. And that is truly a great accomplishment. As most of you know, the organization was originally created to plan a commemoration for the 150th anniversary of the first National Woman’s Rights Convention held here in Worcester in 1850. But even in those first years, many believed WWHP could become so much more than that. And it has. Over the years, before and since the Women 2000 celebration, the Worcester Women’s History Project seems to have found its way by helping the community to remember its past. With so many initiatives, from the women’s portraits in Mechanics Hall to the oral history project, and to this event tonight remembering the life and work of Frances Perkins of Worcester, the first woman to serve as a Cabinet Secretary, WWHP has contributed in so many ways to preserve the memory of women’s contributions in the community.

Old Stories—How it all began.

The anniversary celebration event came to be known as Women 2000, but it all started in the early 1990s. As I began to learn about the 1850 convention, I encountered so many people who were interested and enthusiastic about doing something to commemorate this event, and preserve the memory for Worcester, including many who were already work-ing in some way to preserve the memory of women’s contributions to the Worcester community.

For me, it began with a class I was taking at Clark, through COPACE, while I was working to finish my bachelor’s degree. I learned that Worcester had been host to the first National Woman’s Rights Conven-tion in 1850, and I couldn’t understand why I had never heard of it before. I thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the event. (See Eleanor Flexner’s book Century of Struggle.)

In the Spring of 1993, I had heard about an event at Abby’s House, sponsored by the Worcester Historical Museum about 19th century Worcester women. Al Southwick was the featured speaker. I called for more information and directions, and was told that the event was full, so I decided to get there really early. I was the first one there. I remember sitting in the kitchen with Annette Rafferty and Elaine Lamoreaux telling them my idea. They were encouraging and showed me the new book about Abby Kelley Foster that had recently been published. (See Dorothy Sterling’s book Ahead of her Time.)

Later that summer, I read Angela Dorenkamp’s article in the T&G, which noted the 145th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention. A few weeks later, I met Angela Dorenkamp at an Abby’s House event. I was chatting with Betty Hoskins, and telling her about the article by Angela Dorenkamp that I had just read, and how I wanted to write something like that. She said, “Well you can meet her: she’s standing over there!” I had to wait for about 20 minutes to talk with her, because she was talking to Harriette Chandler. When I eventually was able to introduce myself, and tell her what I was thinking about doing, she said, “You look like you could organize it with two hands tied behind your back!” She was so encouraging. I said, “I’m a secretary.” And she said, “I think secretaries can do anything!”

About a month later, I wrote an article calling for commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the 1850 convention. Nancy Avila, who was my co-worker—we were both legal secretaries at the same Worcester law firm—read drafts of the article and made suggestions, and she encouraged me to send it in to the T&G. It was published in November 1993.

One of the first responses I got was from Sylvia Buck, librarian at the Warren Public Library (Warren is next to West Brookfield—Lucy Stone country.), asking me why I had not mentioned Lucy Stone! (Well, I had just read the book about Abby Kelley Foster and didn’t know much of anything about Lucy Stone.)

I met Ginger Navickas at the YWCA when she popped up from behind the counter in late 1993 after hearing me ask if anyone might be interested in talking with me about commemorating the woman’s rights convention. Linda Cavaioli called me back, and we organized the first meeting to gather “interested participants” including Angela, Annette and Elaine.

Before the meeting, I called Al Southwick for his-torical information (His number was listed in the phone book, and he answered the phone!) because I had seen the name Southwick mentioned in the book about Abby Kelley Foster. He said they were probably related, somehow. I told him about the meeting and what we were intending to do. He invited me to attend a gathering of Worcester historians that met regularly at Assumption College to tell them what I was doing.

I met the members of the Worcester History Group at Assumption, including Ken Moynihan and John McClymer, who become very involved in the WWHP and helped us with research. Another member of that group, Bob Cormier (since passed away), had already compiled a database of the attendees at the 1850 convention with the help of his Shrewsbury High School students. That database turned out to be so helpful, and he was so generous to share it.
Peggy Kocoras, another early participant, was another one of my professors at Clark. She taught a course called Growing up female in the 19th century, and she jumped right into WWHP.

Karen Moran, a middle school social studies teacher, found us. She had already been doing re-search on the woman’s rights movement.

Somewhere along the line I met Bill Densmore, who, I’ll never forget, told me I had “a tiger by the tail.” He was so right.

So many people became involved—the energy was impossible to contain. There were so many ideas, and so much excitement. But, you know that—so many of you in this room were there! We had 6 years to get something going, and it did not seem like enough.

By 1995, the group of “interested participants” which was growing and growing had met several times, and had decided to plan a celebration, and to call it Women 2000, and to set up a non-profit organization. I remember contacting the Secretary of State’s office to reserve three names for the new organization, one of which was Worcester Women’s History Project. (I don’t remember the other two.) I had to pay for each of those names, I believe it was every month (I don’t know why—I thought somebody might steal those names?!), until the group had decided on a name, and had written and approved bylaws to create an organizational structure. City Councilor Konnie Lukes helped us (at no charge) to file the paperwork to set up a 501(c)(3) organization. We were soon able to hire Jessie Rodrique as the coordinator for Women 2000. And we were able to raise money to make it happen.

WWHP and Community Memory—keeping memories alive for the future.

Women 2000 gave us an opportunity to remember the past in a very concrete way. Reenacting the original convention (We commissioned Louisa Burns-Bisogno to write the dramatization, “Angels & Infidels.”), and also holding a contemporary convention to revisit the issues of importance to the women of 1850, the WWHP explored the significance of the 1850 convention and learned about how Worcester contributed to the feminist movement we recognize today. By remembering the struggles of the past, we realize that so many struggles women face even today are really nothing new.

The Worcester convention’s signature call for “Equality before the law without distinction of sex or color”— had touched off a firestorm of controversy, even within the early women’s movement itself. This is really what set the Worcester conven-tion apart from the others. While some believed equality for black women and freedom for slave women to be central to the fight for women’s rights, many others saw it as a distraction, and the controversy launched the fledgling movement into the stratosphere of public attention, both positive and negative. The memory of Worcester’s role in the early woman’s rights movement remained strong within the local community for many years.

Beyond racial justice, controversial issues identified as significant by the participants in 1850 included: freedom for women to choose any occupation, and to have every educational avenue open to them, and to have the opportunity to participate fully in politics and government. Yes, these were all controversial issues at the time.

Let’s take a minute to remember Margaret Fuller because it is her 200th birthday this year. She was a writer and editor, a journalist, and a transcendentalist, and world traveler, as well as the founder of the Boston “Conversations” for women, a precursor in some way to the women’s clubs of a later era. In fact, she was often memorialized by women’s clubs who looked to her for inspiration after her death. Fuller was identified by (1850 convention Fuller was identified by (1850 convention president) Paulina Davis as the preferred choice to be president of the Worcester convention. Unfortunately she died in a shipwreck just a few months before the woman’s rights convention took place. But her memory lived on thanks to so many generations who looked to her for inspiration and remembered her life. This year there have been many events to commemorate her birthday, from Concord to Boston.

WWHP was not the first organization started in the city in memory of the 1850 convention. More than a hundred years before the WWHP, the Worcester Woman’s Club was started after a local commemoration of the Woman’s Rights Convention of 1850. In 1880, a group of women who had attended a party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1850 Woman’s Rights Convention were apparently looking for an excuse to start a women’s club, I think, which were becoming very popular at the time. The WWC honored women such as Abby Kelley Foster and Lucy Stone, during their lifetimes and after they died.

At the 16th anniversary of the WWC in 1896, which was commemorated with a dinner much as we are doing here, and included ten of their charter mem-bers in attendance, one speaker told of some of the club’s contributions to the community until that point: they had initiated public kindergartens in the city including a kindergarten for blind children, nurses training programs, and a hospital for conta-gious diseases. In those days, the WWC was meeting in rented rooms at the YWCA’s new building on Chatham Street. Even back then, there was much collaboration among the women’s organizations in Worcester. It was about 6 years before the WWC built its own building—Tuckerman Hall. (When will WWHP build its own building?)

When the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 guaranteeing the right to vote for women, the Worcester newspapers noted that one Sarah Earle, who had been in attendance as a girl at the 1850 convention (She may have attended with her parents, because her name is not on the list of “voters.”) was happy to be alive to see women finally get the vote.

In various ways, the memory of the 1850 convention has been kept alive in this community. The event is part of the memory of the Worcester Woman’s Club, as the inspiration for its founding in 1880. The event is also included in a story by Al Southwick in his book Once-Told Tales of Worcester County. Abby’s House has done much to remember local women from the 19th century to recent times, especially Abby Kelley Foster, whose incendiary speech in support of causes she believed in both shocked and inspired many, even to this day.

Since 2002, when I took a job teaching full time at Quinsigamond Community College, I’ve been mostly watching WWHP from a distance. I have seen how the organization has continued to pre-serve community memory in so many innovative ways. It is very important work. I look forward to seeing how it unfolds in the future.

Anniversary celebrations help people to remember events of the past, giving opportunities to talk about what happened and who made it happen. The booklet for this 15th anniversary is just beautiful, and will become a part of the community memory, too.

By the way, I am continu-ing to research the history of feminism in Worcester, and I’m interested in any information or family stories about women involved with the Worcester Woman’s Club, the YWCA, and the woman suffrage movement in Worcester before 1920. So if anyone has information or can point me to some resources that might be relevant, please contact me: connellycook@mac.com.

Thank you.
Lisa Connelly Cook
October 22, 2010

Published Date: 
February 19, 2011