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Women’s History, Recorded

Published: March 15, 2016

Whether it’s women’s pay equity, reproductive rights or work force harassment, the fight involving women’s issues is marching on. History Professor Emerita Sherna Berger Gluck believes that in order to be successful in these battles, looking at the past can be a great place to start.

“First of all people—especially students—need to know the history. With all this talk today about what they are advocating, it is important for them to know the past to know where they came from. I think young women today are very proud and that comes from all these women and stories that came before them,” said Gluck, who pointed to the issue of women’s reproductive rights as an example. “Given the push today against women’s reproductive rights, our research will help today’s generation see what their predecessors went through. As the fight goes on, this is something that women could use to develop their own arguments—knowing that women died not having these rights and knowing what women did to get them. This is going to be an ongoing battle. This helps them develop tools for going forward. It’s particularly important for K-12 students. Many teachers have used our collection as tools for getting students to do interviews with their families.”

The collection Gluck is referring to is CSULB’s Virtual Oral/Aural History Archive, which she created with Kaye Briegel, who is also a professor emerita. Overseen by the University Library, the collection includes approximately 700 recordings of women’s oral histories to which people can access.

The collection is far-reaching and includes categories such as Asian-American Women’s Movement Activists; Chicana Feminists; Feminist Health Movement; Feminist Health Movement; Professionals and Entrepreneurs; Reformers and Radicals; Rosie the Riveter Revisited; Suffragists; Welfare Mothers, Welfare Rights; and Women’s Lives, Women’s Work 1900-1960.

“What does it mean to publish digital essays and what are the implications?” said Berger Gluck, who oversaw and expanded the collection for many years. “It’s much more personal and much more immediate than reading print. You can get a sense of things. The anonymity is not there like words on paper. You don’t get a sense of the voice in a book. You see an image of a person while listening to the person. The person is there. There’s no distancing at all.”

She said her favorite interview, of which she did the majority in the collection, may be the one with 104-year-old Sylvie Thygeson, who was involved in both the women’s reproductive rights and suffrage movements in St. Paul, Minn., in the mid-1910s and for decades thereafter.

Among a variety of topics touched on during that interview done nearly a half a century ago, Thygeson discussed her doubts that the country would ever have a woman president.

“I don’t think we’ve gone very far yet because we are far away from anyone thinking of a woman being president of the United States, and there isn’t any reason in the world why some women aren’t just as capable as some men to become head of the government,” said Thygeson in that 1972 interview. “We’re a long way from that. Of course, I might be surprised if I were to live on.”

The collection, which began in 1972, originally focused on the Suffragist movement and over the years branched out to the many topics noted above. According to Gluck, the key is that these are oral histories, not simply the written word.

“The interviews in the collection are certainly lively. The narrators are animated and you get a sense of the emotions behind their stories. Listening to them is a more emotional experience and more personal,” she said.

One of the most accessed categories is Rosie the Riveter, which represents the many women during World War II who took jobs in defense factories, particularly aircraft industries.

Since Berger Gluck retired in 2005, the collection has been overseen by Ali Igmen, the director of the Oral History Program, who also serves as an associate professor in the Department of History.

“Our Oral History Program under Sherna and Kaye’s tutelage was one of the first in the nation to put something like this together. We are talking about the actual recorded oral histories on this website, which has won many national accolades, including the prestigious Accenture and MIT Digital Government Award in 2003,” said Igmen. “Now there are others, but ours is extensive and valuable because of Sherna’s work in women’s oral history, including her interview collection and her book, Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change, which made her internationally renowned. Thanks to Sherna and Kaye’s efforts, it is an internationally recognized and respected collection for academic research and teaching materials.”