Our scholarship informs our work at Omnia History, whether engaging public audiences online, through exhibits, or in classes and workshops. Understanding the past is a critical part of our mission to promote change in the present. In an upcoming adult education seminar at the Newberry Library, we will be focusing on women in turn-of-the-century Chicago to explore the changing nature of gender and violence in an industrial city.Check out this excerpt from my research to get a glimpse of what we’ll be discussing in the course.
“Biler Avenue” was the nickname for a two-block stretch of Pacific Avenue in late nineteenth-century Chicago made notorious by “women without husbands” who “got ‘biling drunk,’ and were in a “state of constant riot and effervescence,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The women of Biler fought, drank, stole, and engaged in sex work to forge tenuous lives in an unforgiving industrial city. Although the women’s economic activity rarely translated into expanded wealth, it did provide the foundation for ward bosses to secure personal fortunes and political power.
The first part of this post is filled with a whole lot of navel-gazing. If you’re not here for that, skip down to “so, what can we do with this energy?”
Early Monday afternoon, my sister sent me a text message. “Did you see that Notre Dame is on fire?” she asked. The university in Indiana, I thought? Or the school I attended for seventh grade in Schenectady, NY? I jumped online and googled Notre Dame and saw what she meant. The Notre-Dame de Paris, the famous Cathedral, was on fire. It seemed inconceivable to me and yet there it was, in flames, smoke billowing from its roof and across the Paris sky. I watched live streams on and off for the next few hours, staring in open-mouthed horror as the fire spread and intensified and as the burning spire finally fell, feeling teary at the sight of so many Parisians and tourists from around the world watching silently from nearby bridges as flames ate away at one of France’s most visible landmarks.
I wasn’t alone in my reaction and, like millions of others, I felt relieved when French authorities reported that they had managed to control the fire, and again when they said that they knew for certain that no one had died in the blaze, and again when they shared footage showing that the sanctuary remained mostly-intact.
I’m deliberately emphasizing my emotional response for a reason. Material culture, including physical structures, has the power to evoke strong emotions and overcome some of the abstraction that can make it difficult to connect with people who lived so long ago. People care about historic buildings, ruins, and other historic elements of the physical landscape because, quite simply, they connect us in a very concrete way to an earlier time. They allow us to think about the humans who lived and loved and suffered in these spaces long before we came along. It’s the closest we come to meeting people who lived in the past– we can stand where they stood and know that they moved through the same space.
time is ripe for small cultural institutions to think about how they can engage
their communities in conversations about voting, elections, and civic
disenfranchisement. For one, we’re in the early stages of the next presidential
election cycle here in the United States. We’ve seen several democrats announce
that they intend to run for the democratic nomination in advance of the 2020
election and I think it’s safe to say that this presidential race will capture
more attention than any other election in modern history. And even if we
weren’t approaching a presidential or congressional election, we’re almost
always at the beginning, middle, or end of some election. Here in Chicago we’re
facing a mayoral and aldermanic election in a few weeks, hot on the heels of
the November midterms.
In addition to the near-constant stream of election cycles, we’re now less than a year away from the beginning of the 19th amendment’s centennial. Celebrations of this important historical moment provide a framework cultural institutions can use to highlight issues related to suffrage, disenfranchisement, and human rights, past and present, in their local communities. Voter disenfranchisement has always been a serious human rights issue, and it’s especially pressing now as a number of states with voter identification laws on the books are attempting (and succeeding) in making these laws even more stringent and restrictive.
moments are important because they present small cultural groups, including
local historical societies and museums, with a number of opportunities to bring
people together to think critically about the role voting, elections, and
disenfranchisement play in their lives and in the lives of those around them.
We never need a reason to talk about the connections between past and present–
this can happen whenever, regardless of current events– but it’s particularly
important that we provide historical context for and facilitate conversations
about issues sitting at the top of the news cycle. High on that list right now
are what I mention above– voting, elections, and civic disenfranchisement.
Over the course of the last eleven weeks, I had the honor of joining a cohort of historians, librarians, and other scholars in a course sponsored by Wiki Education and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). We received technical training on the ins and outs of Wikipedia and contributed to articles relating to women’s suffrage in anticipation of the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and an associated exhibit on the topic planned by NARA. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be a student again, and benefited greatly from the excellent facilitation by Wiki Education staff and thoughtful conversations with fellow Wiki Scholars. By the end of the course I contributed to Wikipedia pages on the Sheppard-Towner Act and Catherine Waugh McCulloch. Here are three things I learned from the experience: