Though sometimes overlooked by historians, in 1850 the First National Women's Rights Convention was held here in Worcester, Mass. — an event that played a vital role in the struggle for women's rights by drawing together over 1,000 people from across the country to discuss topics of primary concern such as education, career, health and politics.
Now, 160 years after the momentous occasion in Worcester's history, a new book by Charlene L. Martin, of Shrewsbury, and Maureen Ryan Doyle, from Holden, seeks to share the compelling stories of women, how far they have have come, as well as the many challenges they still face today.
"I think the story is all about making connections," said Martin. "And we hope that's what this will do. I think you can pick it up and find a story in here that might be somewhat similar to your own life in any woman's case, and you are also going to find stories that are nothing like your life — and that's still a way of making connections. I think it can be inspiring. I think all of that, in a way, does create community."
Martin and Doyle serve on the steering committee of the Worcester Women's History Project, and have co-chaired the Worcester Women's Oral History Project since 2008.
The project's got its start in 2000 with the the formation of the Worcester Women's History Project, which came about to bring the importance of the 1850 convention back into people's consciesness.
A three-day series of programs called Women 2000 was held in Worcester to commemorate the event, again drawing people from all over the United States and as far away as Russia and India.
This gave birth to the WWHP, and in 2005, founding chair Linda Rosenlund had the vision for a Worcester Women's Oral History Project that would collect stories of current Worcester women.
"I think Linda thought that the Worcester Women's History Project was doing a wonderful job at commemorating this historical event that happened in Worcester and putting forth other women from the community like Abby Kelley Foster, for example," said Martin. "The oral history project is a way of collecting women's stories from our current time for future historians, so it's a way of continuing history by looking forward, in a way. Everyone that we interview says, 'why would you want to hear my story?' but they are all interesting stories. I've always felt that I like to read a story about a woman from 100 years ago because it tells me what her life is like and what the times were like. Why wouldn't a woman 100 years from now be interested in reading about our lives? It becomes history."
While Doyle and Martin did some of the inteviews, they also relied on help from students and community volunteers as well.
In fact, through the Higher Education Collaborative, the project was able to proceed with students from various colleges around Worcester conducting oral histories, getting college credits as part of their course assignments.
Together, they researched the stories of over 250 women of varying age groups and from diverse ethnic, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds and compiled the excerpts in Voices of Worcester Women.
"We were very committed to getting a real cross-section in the community," said Doyle, pointing out that the age range of interviewees in the book is from 18 years old to 103.
Additionally, they were able to work with Deaf Studies Department at Holy Cross, with students using their American Sign Language skills to interview deaf women from the community.
Latino women from the area were also interviewed entirely in Spanish, and a class at Assumption is translating the transcripts into English this Semester.
"It's unique in that way too, that we've been able to get a diverse population within the project," said Martin.
While the permanent repository for those oral histories is the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the book enables many of the unique, vibrant, and fascinating stories to be even more accessible to the public.
"The book needed to be done," said Martin. It was very difficult, but it was also I think fun at the same time to go through them all."
Of the 250 transcripts, 69 were chosen for the book — the selection process being one of the hardest tasks for Doyle and Martin.
"To us, each story was interesting, and I think that's how we decided we wanted to do this book, because what was happening was we would get the interviews back from the students, and as we would read through them there wasn't a one that I think we said 'oh that was boring.'
Far from it, in fact. From the interviews, stories emerged from women like Thea Aschkenase, a survivor of Auschwitz who has just recently written a book of her own.
"It's such a compelling story of when she was living in Germany as a little girl and how her life went from playing with children in the neighborhood to suddenly being shunned, to then the horror of Auschwitz," said Doyle.
"Certainly the ones that spoke most to me were the stories of women overcoming some kind of a challenge," said Martin, explaining that the interviews with women who have perservered through health struggles resounded with her.
Samantha Vayo is the youngest woman in the book, and while she was born with cerebral palsy and deaf, "at the time of the interview when she was only 18, she was talking about doing all these sports and competitions — they said she would never walk, yet here she was playing sports — and she was doing modeling, so it was like, wow, she's so young, she's overcome all of this," said Martin.
Vayo is now studying engineering at RIT.
"Her story meant a lot to me because she was courageously pushing through what doctors told her couldn't be done," said Martin.
The stories are divided into themes based on the topics of primary concern at the 1850 Convention — education, work, health, and politics— as well as a chapter devoted to memories unique to living in Worcester.
Despite the 160 years that have passed since the first National Convention, Doyle explained that there are parallels between the voices in the book and the women who were part of the historic event.
"I think the idea of trying to balance life is a common thread for women throughout history," she said.
"I think you would see that many women are talking about work, but also trying to take care of their elderly parents; they're talking about raising their children, but they're also talking about volunteering for a community organization. They are always doing multiple things," said Martin.
While the history of women's rights has come a long way since 1850, sometimes it is easy for women today to take the progress for granted.
"I think for some young women today, they might think this has always been in place, which is why I think a book like this is good," said Doyle. "The project itself has been very meaningful to many students who come back and say 'I never knew that in the 1970's when women graduated college they were looking at Jobs Wanted Male, Jobs Wanted Female.'"
The job ads would usually be limited in range — consisting of teacher, nurse, secretary — "and often they would read, 'bright, perky secretary with bubbly personality wanted. Typing required," said Doyle.
"The younger people today would never know that, nor should they," added Martin. "We want to keep advancing, so that's why I think the project and the book is useful information."
Martin said it was an honor to be able to compile the stories of women, and help share their lives with the wider community to read.
Doyle added: "I am very grateful to all the women who were so honest about their lives because some of the stories have some hard truths in them, and they were so willing to share this to maybe help other women who are maybe struggling with the same situations — and that takes a lot of courage."
In celebration of the book's launch, Martin and Doyle will be at the Worcester Public Library to sign books at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6. The event is free and open to the Public.
Voices of Worcester Women: 160 Years after the First National Woman's Right's Convention, is now available on Amazon.com.