Collecting and Preserving
the Stories of Local Women
By Erin Pagel
At times, women of history can be obscured or hidden. Their lives, their work, their art and their stories can be overshadowed by spotlights focused elsewhere or the ongoing passage of time. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, we look to a group of Rochester women who are telling the stories of local women and illuminating the extraordinary accomplishments of women in our communities.
WOMEN’S HISTORY CIRCLE
Women’s History Circle is a young organization associated with the History Center of Olmsted County. The group is dedicated to assuring that contributions of women are honored and shared, so current and future generations can learn and be inspired. Women’s History Circle encourages the collection and preservation of stories and organizes programs and exhibits to celebrate women. Coralee Grebe is a volunteer with the History Center of Olmsted County working as the facilitator for Women’s History Circle. Grebe says the organization is “committed to telling the untold stories of women and their historical contributions and documenting the women of today, who are the history of tomorrow.” Planning team member Barb Milburn echoes this sentiment, calling Women’s History Circle a “group of wise women who are excited to share their knowledge of the roles women have played, and continue to play, in the life of Olmsted County.”
Part of the mission of Women’s History Circle is to preserve history both near and far in time and across background and race. In pursuit of this goal, the group is collaborating with Diversity Council and other local organizations to connect with those interested in history from all walks of life and hear as many perspectives and stories as possible. Women’s History Circle is also working to connect with local youth, like Girl Scouts, to encourage young students to better understand the role of women in history.
SPEAKERS AND EVENTS
Women’s History Circle organizes monthly opportunities for area residents to learn about how women impact local history. Previous circles have celebrated art and stories and facilitated experiences, like rug making. The group has organized discussion including opportunities in sports, involvement in medicine, women in the skilled trades and the art of holiday foods. Women’s History Circle events sometimes offer a food component in the form of old family recipes and food tasting. “We’re as much about eating as we are about meeting,” laughs Grebe.
Women’s History Circle events have also included conversations with a local historical novel author, the Minnesota League of Women Voters, various artists and several “first” women (including the first Rochester woman mayor, Kim Norton, and the first woman judge in rural Minnesota, Ancy Morse). “Not only do we have many still living ‘firsts’ for women in our community, but also a rich social and economic history in which women were significant participants,” highlights planning committee member Amy Caucutt. Prudy Knaak, another planning committee member, adds about the monthly events, “The learning that has come as a result of the programs, the value of learning what has been and what can be accomplished, the positivity of hearing the stories of women, the opportunity to talk with like-minded people and the value of being open to new ideas and new people—the events have had such a great impact on those who attend because it challenges us to look deeper into women’s accomplishments.”
All interested are welcome and encouraged to attend the monthly events.
CELEBRATING SUFFRAGE THIS YEAR
There is no question that the list of women’s contributions to the world we live in is far-reaching. One in particular—the woman suffrage movement—is enjoying well-deserved attention in 2020. Obtaining the right to vote has been called the most significant achievement of women in the progressive era. Across the country, celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment are in full swing. Women’s History Circle and Rochester are in on the celebration through much of 2020. The History Center of Olmsted County’s Suffrage Centennial exhibit will kick off in May and run for much of the year, bringing alive the story of Rochester’s suffragettes.
THE POWER OF STORIES
Much of what we know about our past is carried on by stories shared between people and generations. Grebe says “I just love stories—the personal perspectives, depth and multiplicity—even if it’s a story of an event I’ve already heard. If you hear it from a new point of view, a new perspective, it can be mind-blowing.” She explains that stories are an essential part of our history, regardless of the form in which they come. The more perspectives we have, the better we can understand.
Grebe shares that through stories, we learn about those surrounding the more famous aspects of history, like women who held the home front while men were at war, women who nursed broken soldiers and women who fought for the right to vote.
Grebe encourages you to think about your own family history. Have you preserved it? “With today’s technology, whose story can’t we tell?” says Grebe. Consider a video or audio recording to simply gather the information. It could be useful beyond your family, as well. Personal family stories can be shared beyond family members and may inform local researchers, historians and beyond.
Check out Women’s History Circle at the History Center of Olmsted County on the first Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. All are invited to learn a bit of history, challenge a few assumptions and consider women’s impacts on our past, present and future.