Untold Stories of the Women of the West: An Intern’s Perspective
Intern Hailey Jures joins us in the Libraries and Archives of the Autry from Occidental College in 2012 and 2013. Her first project involves archival collection MSA.39 Women of the West Museum Institutional Archives. Here we share with you Hailey’s reflections on her first weeks with us.
As I inventoried the exhibition files of the Women of the West Museum (WOWM), I explored the lives of women who paved the road for women’s rights, which women continue to fight for today. WOWM organized the exhibitions into single files for each featured person. The files included photographs, biographies, newspaper clippings, and interviews that the researchers gathered to spotlight each person. The exhibitions featured well-known women of the West such as Annie Oakley, Molly Brown, and my childhood hero, Laura Ingalls Wilder. What I found most interesting about this collection, however, were the unsung heroes and the stories rarely heard.
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte (1865–1915) was the first and only female Native American doctor in the nineteenth-century United States. She not only epitomized female independence but also confronted the effects of alcohol both on the Omaha reservation and in the Native American community. In 1913, she founded a hospital on the reservation, now a national historical landmark, to treat both Native Americans and whites. Picotte is said to have treated all of the Omaha tribe members and saved many lives. She bridged cross-cultural gaps and advocated for improved racial relations and equal treatment for Native Americans. Her accomplishments also contributed to the large female presence in medical school and in the profession today.
Asa Mercer’s file was interesting as it was the only file in the collection dedicated to a man. At first, I was a bit confused about his inclusion, but he played a major role in the lives of hundreds of women. A. S. (Asa Shinn) Mercer (1839–1917) was a businessman who, following the Civil War, established “Mercer’s Belles,” which arranged for single Southern women of “good moral character” to go to the Pacific Northwest in hopes of finding a husband. To my disappointment, the file did not include more stories about these women and their lives. I wonder if some women utilized Mercer’s Belles to leave the South and start a new life for themselves, not solely dedicated to finding a husband. The thought of feminists infiltrating the system is too exciting!
Another fabulous feminist icon spotlighted in the collection was Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911–1956). Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the greatest female athlete of the twentieth century, and arguably of all time. She succeeded at multiple sports, including basketball, track, and golf. At the 1932 Olympics she won three track medals: two gold and one silver. People continually questioned her gender because of her extreme athleticism, similar to the struggle South African runner Caster Semenya faced after her victory in the 2009 track World Championships. Regardless of these comments, Babe continued to compete and later became a female golf icon, helping to establish the LPGA. She challenged the traditional notions of femininity to pursue her athletic goals in this male-dominated field.
Exploring the lives of these women and many more over the past few weeks has been a wonderful experience. I can see how the legacies of these women launched the foundations for the current fights of the feminist movement, and I cannot wait to continue working with this collection.