“Give the help of your best thought to separate the light from the darkness”

An appreciation of Women’s History and Worcester

Worcester Women’s History Project 20th Anniversary Celebration Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts Thursday, October 22, 2015 

Good evening!!! I am VERY honored to be here tonight to celebrate your rewarding and important work — and to celebrate all of you. 

I have been impressed with this organization for a long time. Our paths have crossed for quite a number of years. 

And so it is good to be among friends — among my tribe, as they say — where I don’t have to defend myself to you, and you don’t have to explain yourself to me. 

“Why do we do it?” I am often asked. 

Why do I — why do we — care so much about wom-en’s history that we are willing to give HOURS, days, and years of our time and attention to studying and sharing the stories of women from our past? 

As the descendant of some old Boston and North Shore families, I remember being asked by a neighbor from Texas one winter, “Why do you live here?” 

“I don’t understand the question,” I said. (I really didn’t.) “This is where we live.” 

Well, women’s history is where WE live, all of us in this room. 

No one had to tell you to do women’s history. 

No one had to convince you. 

You knew twenty years ago, and you know tonight, that this is what we do. 

Among friends 

I said how delighted I was to be among friends, and frankly that’s how I feel when I hang out with the women I study — and I know you do too! 

I like the women I study, very much, which is where we start with history being personal. 

It reminds me of something David McCullough said when his biography of John Adams came out. He told me that he had initially wanted to write a biography of Adams AND Jefferson, but that the more he studied Thomas Jefferson the less he liked him — and he didn’t want to spend his time with someone he didn’t like!

As someone who has spent about 25 years with Judith Sargent Murray one way or another, I understood this! 

I LOVE this woman, and anyone who has heard me speak about her knows that! 

She is very real to me, very inspiring, and she was a champion for women’s rights at the defining moments of our nation — a story most people don’t know because she didn’t marry a president. And so I am driven to keep telling her story! 

Another example of why making our women “real” matters happened a few years ago during Margaret Fuller’s Bicentennial. I wrote and designed a display about her life, and I also wrote a sermon about her, which I gave at several Unitarian Universalist churches in the Boston area. 

My sermon was about life purpose, and the fact that through her faith, courage, and actions Margaret had in-deed lived hers — despite drowning in a shipwreck at age 40. 

At the end of my talk, I said, “I HOPE that in the twelve hours it took for the ship to go down — TWELVE hours — that she said to herself, ‘I knew my purpose,’ and I did it.” 

I could never get through that last part without choking up (like right now), and one man came up to me after-ward, hugged me, with tears in his eyes, and said, “Thank you for making her so real. I was expecting a boring history lecture, but I will never forget her and what she did for us.” 

The point is, Margaret Fuller IS real, and Judith Sargent Murray IS real, and so are Abby Kelley Foster, Paulina Wright Davis, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Harriet Tubman, and ALL of the women whose stories YOU bring forth. 

I like to use the term “A Vast Army of Women” when I think about the women who have gotten us here — al-ways at our side in our imagination, always encouraging us on. We stand on their shoulders. 

We are connected to them — through time, through the generations, by blood, by studying, and by teaching; through our friendships and networks, like this organization. 

Their shared interest in women’s rights connected our women to each other, despite great distances. Women are born communicators, and we have always found a way to connect. 

In fact, as you know, the 1850 Convention opened with a moment of silence in honor of Margaret Fuller, who had just died. Her articles, her “Conversations” classes in Boston, and her landmark book Woman in the 19th Century had deeply influenced the Convention’s organizers. 

And speaking of the Convention… 

I used Paulina Wright Davis’s words in the title of my talk, but let’s hear some more from her opening remarks. She said then, and could just as easily say today: 

The reformation which we purpose, in its utmost scope, is radical and universal. It is not the mere perfecting of a progress already in motion, a detail of some established plan, but it is an epochal movement—the emancipation of a class, the redemption of half the world, and a conforming re-organization of all social, political, and industrial interests and institutions. 

Moreover, it is a movement without example among the enterprises of associated reformations, for it has no purpose of arming the oppressed against the oppressor, or of separating the parties, or of setting up independence, or of severing the relations of either. 

It is pitiable ignorance and arrogance for either man or woman now to prescribe and limit the sphere of woman. It remains for the greatest women whom appropriate culture, and happiest influences shall yet develop, to declare and to prove what are woman's capacities and relations in the world. 

I will not accept the concession of any equality which means identity or resemblance of faculty and function. I do not base her claims upon any such parallelism of constitution or attainment. 

I ask only freedom for the natural unfolding of her powers, the conditions most favorable for her possibilities of growth, and the full play of all those incentives which have made man her master, and then, with all her natural impulses and the whole heaven of hope to invite, I ask that she shall fill the place that she can attain to, without settling any unmeaning questions of sex and sphere, which people gossip about for want of principles of truth, or the faculty to reason upon them. 

And so…. We need to keep doing what we do. But I don’t have to tell you that. 

Because we are speaking for women who are no longer with us, but whose lives made a difference. 

In fact, when you look critically at the lives of high-achieving historical women, and you ask, “How did she do what she did despite all those obstacles?” 

You find the common denominators of: having healthy self-esteem and a solid support system (even if it took a while for them to get there), having faith in oneself and one’s gifts, hanging out and networking with the right people, being able to make good decisions and recover from poor ones, having courage and taking action. 

The women we share with the world have answers that we need today. 

We are also speaking for women whose names and stories we may never know. Think of your own “Rediscovered voices” section on your website. 

What we are doing matters. 

It matters because we must balance our collective story. 

It matters to the mother of a young girl in Framingham, who came up to me with her daughter after a talk I gave on Framingham women during the Civil War, and said: “Thank you! You have just given my daughter at least a dozen outstanding role models. She gets NO women’s history in school.” 

It matters to the 8th-grade boy in Gloucester who said publicly, in a speech, “Judith Sargent Murray is my role model.” Imagine! A boy saying that about a girl in front of his fellow students, teachers, parents, and community! “Why?” I asked him. “Because society told her she couldn’t do things, and she did them anyway.” 8th grade! 

What we do matters to the Dads who come on my walking tours with their daughters because they want them to be anything they want to be — and they want their daughters to hear our stories. 

It matters to teachers who can’t always teach what they would like to. 

It matters to adults engaged in lifelong learning who only remember “history” as a boring classroom experience, memorizing dates, wars, and presidents. After my talks, I ALWAYS hear, “Why have I never heard of this person before???” 

And finally, it matters to our local communities, where we must not lose our local history as people continue to move in and out of town. 

And so…. Why Worcester?

(As a Bostonian, I asked that ques-tion too, because, as you know, West of Concord or Brookline, we don’t know and don’t care. But I have since come ‘round!!!) 

When I think about Worcester, I think about women working together — organizing, strategizing, planning, and taking action — a coming-together in 1850 of female power from all of the New England states, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio that consolidated individual efforts and sparked so much on behalf of women’s rights that changed the world for the better. 

I also think about the men who joined them in their work in Worcester, and who were deeply committed to the inseparable issues of justice for women, for African Americans, and Native Americans. 

And so as much as history is personal, it is also political, and it is important to connect the dots between past and present. 

Look no further than the treatment of our two women candidates for president. Different standard? That didn’t come from nowhere! 

Why Worcester? Why not Worcester? Why not every city and town — taking their lead from Worcester? 

You have a lot to celebrate, and a lot more rewarding and important work ahead. 

This work calls all of us to our higher selves. 

We have the privilege of being of service to the past, present, and future. We have our gifts for a reason, and we are using them. 

It doesn’t get better than that. 

I commend you for all that you have accomplished, and I look forward to your 25th, your 50th, and your 100th! 

Paulina Wright Davis would tell you: “Give the help of your best thought to separate the light from the darkness.” 

THANK YOU so much for letting me share this very milestone event with you — and keep going! 

Content copyright 2015. History Smiths and Bonnie Hurd Smith - How are you telling your story? All rights reserved. [Reprinted with permission from Bonnie Hurd Smith.]

Published Date: 
February 23, 2016