Embassy Officials, Hosted by the International Center of Worcester, Learn About Worcester Women and Their Importance to American History

by Regina M. Edmonds

Who would have imagined that a simple email sent to me on April 23rd by Nancy Avila,  WWHP's dedicated executive assistant, would have resulted in four days of frantic preparation culminating in an enjoyable presentation for a lively group of U.S. foreign embassy officials? Certainly not me!!!! But that is exactly what happened and here's how.

The email Nancy sent asked if I would be willing to give a brief presentation about the work of the Worcester Women's History Project to a group of international travelers on April 29th at Clark University and if so would I get in touch with Dr. Royce Anderson, the executive director of the International Center of Worcester which was the organization hosting this group. Despite the short time between the invitation and the event itself, preparing such a presentation sounded interesting, fun, and most importantly not too much work, so I wrote a quick email back saying – sure, no problem and the next day I contacted Dr. Anderson to let him know that I would be the person representing the WWHP. In talking with him I also hoped to get a better sense of the composition of this group of visitors and how talking about the Worcester Women's History Project would fit into their overall interests. That is when the plot really thickened!!! It turned out that the group coming to Worcester consisted of twenty-five senior embassy officials from twenty-two different countries who were visiting the United States as part of a training program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. This program had the goal of teaching the participants as much as possible about American culture, history, and government so that they could return to the embassies in their home countries to help interpret for their fellow citizens American policy decisions using their newly developed understanding of American society gained through this training program. To quote Dr. Anderson, "This is a unique 'Citizen Diplomacy' opportunity to interact with people on the forefront of our foreign policy in many parts of the world." He went on to say that he hoped I could demonstrate how Worcester women were directly connected to national women's rights movements and asked that I develop a set of PowerPoint slides to illustrate my talk, prepare handouts summarizing my main points, and perhaps develop a list of relevant readings for the group. He also provided me with a list of the participants, their home countries, and their fascinating bios. I was immediately in awe of this astonishing group of embassy officials but also completely panic-stricken!!!! What had I gotten myself into now!!!! I had been thinking of the presentation as being a casual one where some of the main accomplishments of the WWHP would be highlighted for a group of everyday travelers who were interested in local historical societies, but instead here I was with only four days to prepare a seemingly scholarly presentation on the place of Worcester and its women within the overall context of American history for a group of highly-educated, worldly individuals who probably had more knowledge and sophisticated analyses of the roots of American foreign policy than I could ever hope to achieve. Yikes!!!!! All I could think of was — when will I ever learn NOT to say yes to things before I even understand what they are?  Help!!!

But luckily this story has a happy ending, due in large measure to the fact that help did indeed arrive. As is so often the case, women are there when we need them most and I was rescued from my anxiety and self-doubt by several wonderful women. Nancy Avila was super in providing me with lots of details on the impact of Worcester women from materials she uncovered in the WWHP archives while Dr. Anderson put me in touch with Chenbo Yan, a young woman who served as his program coordinator, and she helped in the preparation of what turned out to be a set of beautiful PowerPoint slides. My colleague and friend from Assumption College, Ellen White, also helped me by formatting a lovely handout featuring portraits and brief biographies of ten significant Worcester women from three periods in time.

I decided to focus my talk on the movement toward social justice because I saw this process as central to American identity and, as a way of capturing this important theme, I titled my presentation Worcester Women: Their Place in America's Movement toward Universal Equality. I was able to use the remarkably beautiful portraits of Abby Kelley Foster, Lucy Stone, Clara Barton, and Dorothea Dix, commissioned by the WWHP and hanging in Mechanics Hall, to highlight the central place these four Worcester women had in the struggles for the rights of women, the enslaved, the physically injured, and the psychologically challenged. Worcester as the site of the first National Woman's Rights Convention was also discussed. Next I presented two short synopses of the lives of two other prominent Worcester figures, namely Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the first woman to serve in a cabinet position, and Emma Goldman, the controversial activist and outspoken critic of capitalism and wars of imperialism. I also highlighted Worcester's important place in the history of reproductive rights by noting that the first successful oral contraceptive pill was developed at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology at the urging of Margaret Sanger, the founder of what is now known as Planned Parenthood. I concluded the presentation by focusing on the continuing challenges to achieving universal equality in America and spoke briefly about three Worcester women of our current time period who embody the spirit of working for the rights of the oppressed and disadvantaged, namely Annette Rafferty, founder of Abby's House, Ginger Navickus, director for many years of the Daybreak Shelter for battered women, and our own hero, the late Angela Dorenkamp, a founding member of the WWHP. To end on a lighter note, I projected the infamous yellow smiley face, now an ever-present international "emoticon" which was developed in Worcester by ad man Harvey Ball to motivate his co-workers and which now cheers us on in numerous ways nearly every day and hopefully inspires us to stay optimistic about and engaged in the work for social justice that remains to be done.  The audience was very responsive and generous in their comments about the talk and then they enjoyed two other excellent presentations focused on empowering women through mentorship initiatives which rounded out the morning of April 29, 2013 at Clark University. What a great day it turned out to be!!!!

Published Date: 
April 29, 2013