Women’s History Month Readfest Ideas

To kick off Women’s History Month, let’s journey through a list of women authors with stories featuring women or girls. These titles–fiction and nonfiction–feature stereotype-busting women characters facing, among other challenges, racism, war and writer’s block. Check them out at the library!

Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart

The sixth installment of the smart, top-notch Kopp Sisters series follows the adventures of the Kopp Sisters as they head overseas to help in the World War I effort, each in her own personal inimitable adventure. They are separated for the first time, and the sisters write to each other with their news. This is a smart, light-hearted series based on the sisters’ true story. Early in the 20th century, Constance Kopp was named one of the first female deputies in the nation. The sisters lived what was considered at that time to be an unconventional life. The three lived alone on a farm in New Jersey, and despite Constance working as a deputy sheriff, it was frowned on to not have any males around to provide and protect. Occasionally the trio piled into the horse and buggy for a day to visit their brother and his wife, and I wonder if he will show up in the series, at some point. The seventh book, Miss Kopp Investigates, arrives on library shelves this year. 

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

A cast of characters make up the community of ‘Conjure Women,’ and Miss Rue, a healer and midwife like her mother, is its center. Because the story’s structure is deftly threaded forward, past and during, you can pluck from this absorbing read the connection of secrets and fallible humans, which plays out in different eras of the Civil War. Miss Rue cares for a community of freedmen, some closer to her than others. She has cared for many people in her life, including a strange kinship she has with a baby who had a difficult birth. When she is accused of witchcraft, she says she just “knows things.” While she is privy to secrets about the plantation owner’s daughter, she knows exposure of her own secrets is a very real possibility. 

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Markham, a British adventurer, covers growing up in Kenya in the early 1900s and beyond. In 1936, Markham became the first woman to cross the Atlantic east-to-west solo, and the first person to make it from England to North America non-stop from east to west. In 2004, this memoir, first released in 1942, landed in the number eight spot out of 100 best adventure books by National Geographic. I gobbled up this aviation pioneer’s memoir like it was a gastronomic garden party. She may have had lauded careers as a bush pilot and a racehorse trainer; however, readers are fortunate that it is because she was also such a talented writer, her compelling adventure stories have endured.

Anybody Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald

Betty MacDonald spent a good chunk of her younger and teen years in the Roosevelt District of Seattle. In her four primo memoirs, details from this madcap family portrait occasionally come bubbling out, and it’s crackling good fun to read. Descriptions of antics and arguments the close-knit family experience attest to their ability to think beyond bleakness. I suppose that’s why the buoyant Anybody Can Do Anything was a surprising delight to read. Betty and her sister, Mary, were job hunting in Seattle during the depression of the 1930s. From what I knew, I expected a glum read. It was not. The family was far from depressed, especially Mary. She saw the economic situation as a personal incentive. Mary’s fearless outlook triumphs and leads Betty into one zany job after another. A groove-restoring read.

The Egg and I, MacDonald’s best-known memoir, was also a successful movie. It was based on the four years she and her husband spent deep in the Olympic Peninsula raising chickens on their remote farm. Alas, the marriage ended. Could it have been that the farm had no running water or electricity, but plenty of endless work starting with the rooster’s crow at 4am, year after year? While she didn’t answer that question in the book, her take on the experiences make for a light-hearted, witty read. Readers bought one million copies in the year after it was published. It was then made into a popular 1947 movie starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert. Betty’s neighbors down the road a bit from the poultry farm, Ma & Pa Kettle, had audiences guffawing so hard, they got their own movies. 

In another excellent read, The Plague and I, MacDonald writes about the nine months she had tuberculosis. It is very contagious. During that time, she stayed in a Seattle sanatorium waiting to be healthy again. 

More absorbing reads by women starring compelling women:

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende. “Two refugees from the Spanish Civil War cross the Atlantic Ocean to Chile. This decades-spanning drama is readable and engrossing throughout.” –Kirkus Reviews

Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict. Check out Benedict’s other under-celebrated women in history. The Only Woman in the Room, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, and others.

How to Order the Universe by Maraia Josae Ferrada. A traveling salesman and his daughter traverse Chile.

Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

Movers and Shakers – the Women who Helped Build Snohomish County

A group of women, some seated and some standing. All are wearing light-colored dresses with long white aprons over. All are also wearing ruffled white nurses caps, as well as ruffled collars.

Nurses at Everett’s first hospital, which opened on Broadway in January of 1894. Image from the Everett Public Library’s Northwest Room Collection.

In our last A Reading Life post about Women’s History Month, Mindy wrote about the importance of personal stories when describing the history of a place. We make history every day, just in living our lives and being a part of our communities. These individual contributions can be hard to trace unless a person leaves a written record or participates in something like the Everett Public Library’s oral history projects. The farther back we go, the more difficult it can be to track down the stories of women and people in minority groups; these individuals were rarely granted space in written accounts of the time. One thing that improves the chances of learning more about the activities of these underrepresented individuals is if they were a part of a larger group. Whether we learn from the records that groups kept or the occasional newspaper coverage that larger projects may have attracted, the trail is a little bit stronger.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, women in what would become Washington State began to form groups and clubs for a variety of reasons. This was a reflection of a larger Women’s Club Movement within the country, but also the outcome of homegrown political movements and a reaction to some specific needs within communities. In Washington State many women were deeply involved in movements to gain the right to vote. When Washington was still a territory, women organized and won the right to vote in 1883; unfortunately they lost that right when Washington became a state in 1888. It eventually became the fifth state to grant women the vote in 1910 – 10 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. More on that amazing story can be found here.

A group of women are seated on the steps of an ornate Victorian front porch. The women are dressed in clothing typical of the late 1800s, with puffy upper sleeves that taper into form-fitting lower arm coverage, corseted waists, and long skirts. All of the women are wearing some style of hat either decorated with flowers, or ribbons.

The Everett Woman’s Book Club sits on the steps of the old Monte Cristo Hotel. They were responsible for founding Everett’s first library. Image from the Everett Public Library’s Northwest Room Collection.

In Everett and Snohomish County, socially and politically active women were also engaged in acts of community building. As the men in the area worked at the clearing of land and the building of mills, the women were involved with founding the first schools, hospitals, and libraries. Women made sure that the children of the community had access to healthy food, clothing, and shelter. They provided for the social activities of the growing communities in the county and invited newcomers in to participate in book clubs, garden clubs, and other special interest groups. The Northwest Room collection has records from a small assortment of Everett-based women’s clubs that can be made available by request in which you could read about their efforts.

A brown document box with a label that reads "Wash State Federation of Women's Clubs - Acc. No. 3436-015 - box 4 of 10."

Just one of the many boxes of records in the University of Washington Special Collections pertaining to the activities of club women in Washington State.

Though immensely important to their home communities, these clubs were not without flaws. Nationally the Women’s Club Movement was, more often than not, segregated by color lines and ethnic backgrounds; Washington State was no different in this regard. There was a Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs, and a Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations. As noted in my last post, one of the earliest presidents of the latter group lived in Everett. We can learn about the work of both groups by visiting the University of Washington’s Special Collections Department to view collections of their records (these are open to the public though it’s best to email ahead so that they can pull materials for you).

If you don’t have time to go be a historian for the day, there are resources in the Northwest Room and online that can provide you with information about the role of women in the Northwest – from indigenous life before contact, though today. Some of my favorites include the following:

As mentioned in Mindy’s earlier post, The Snohomish County Women’s Legacy Project is one of our go-to resources.

Washington Women as Path Breakers by Mildred Tanner Andrews does a wonderful job of representing the many different cultural groups who have played a role in the development of this region.

HistoryLink.org is full of scholarly articles on a wide range of local history topics. On the topic of the history or organized women’s movements, I would recommend the ones on Nettie Asberry, Women’s Club Movement in Washington, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Western Washington and YWCA – Seattle-King County/Snohomish County.

A group of middle-aged and elderly Native American women who are seated in a cedar longhouse. The women are dressed in non-Native attire, some with simple head wraps.

Women at the Tulalip Reservation, seated in a newly-built long house. 1914, photographer J.A. Juleen. Image from the Everett Public Library’s Northwest Room collection.

Herstories Northwest: Women Upholding Native Traditions by Jay Miller talks about the important role women have played in preserving and sharing indigenous culture within the region.

Organized Womanhood: Cultural Politics in the Pacific Northwest, 1840-1920 by Sandra Haarsager delves deeply into the impact of women’s clubs on the region.

The History of Snohomish County, Washington edited by William Whitfield contains sections on the different women’s clubs in towns and cities in Snohomish County and provides a good point-in-time look at what the County was like in the early decades of non-Native settlement.

Bridging Two Centuries: Everett Women from the 1890s to World War I by retired Northwest Room Historian, Margaret Riddle is an excellent audiobook that provides local context for the topics discussed in this post. Unlike the other resources listed above, the library owns circulating copies of this resource so it can be enjoyed at home or in your car.

While the other books mentioned are reference copies that must stay in the library, we encourage you to come to the Northwest Room to work with them. The Northwest Room is staffed on weekdays from 10-5pm but the materials in the room can be accessed any time the library is open. If you are interested in accessing any of the Northwest Room’s archival materials, contact us to make an appointment and we would be happy to pull boxes for you.

Shining a Light on Women’s History

March is Women’s History Month, a national celebration of the vital role women have played in American history. Historical narratives that focus almost exclusively on men tend to erase women’s diverse experiences and contributions. That’s true at the national and local level.

But of course, we know women have been here from the very beginning, shaping the history of our community through their work in all kinds of occupations—paper makers, labor leaders, entrepreneurs, club women, photographers, teachers, nurses, doctors, journalistspoliticians, aerospace workers, and beyond. Several of these individual women’s stories are documented on the Snohomish County Women’s Legacy Project. Yet much more work needs to be done to fully weave women’s history and perspective into our understanding of local history.

Even in women’s history, we tend to celebrate those people in positions of prominence— women who make policies, headlines, and waves in our society. Their contributions to history are powerful, but I’m personally drawn to the stories about the humble lives of women who didn’t live in the spotlight. Although it’s harder to find their stories, they are compelling. Learning about the challenges and triumphs of “regular” people can shine a powerful light on the social and cultural life of a community.

Eva Jones Davis is one such woman in Everett history. Eva spent most of her 98 years in the Riverside neighborhood. Her family moved to Everett when she was about eight, and her father installed machinery at the paper mill in Lowell. When she arrived in Everett around 1891, it was a rough and tumble town site, just a hint of the industrial city she would watch it grow into one day.  Eva grew up and came of age along with the City of Everett.

In an oral history interview conducted at the Everett Public Library in 1977, Eva shared her perspective as an Everett pioneer who grew up and raised a family here.

In her interview, which you can read or listen to online, Eva recalls a lonely childhood. She lacked siblings and neighbors, and her only playmate was a young Native American girl, Gracie Spithill. Eva’s mother was a founding member of the Baptist Church in Everett, who also worked as a midwife and taught Eva to make home remedies. Eva recalled one particularly colorful incident in which she created a salve from Stockholm tar and Vaseline to save an injured boy’s leg from amputation!

Eva’s stories provide a fascinating glimpse into what daily domestic life, childhood, motherhood, and marriage looked like in Everett in the early 20th century.

Celebrating Black History Month: Mrs. Jennie Samuels

Black and white portrait photograph of an African American woman with a hat decorated with ribbons. She appears to be wearing a suit jacket and a string of pearls over a light-colored blouse.

Portrait of Mrs. J.B. “Jennie” Samuels taken from a cookbook published by the Colored Women’s Federation of Washington. Nettie J. Asberry papers. University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries women in the United States began to organize around what later became known as the Women’s Club Movement. In cities, towns, and even rural areas women’s clubs formed to tackle the improvement of their communities in a number of different ways. Within Washington State there were so many clubs that by 1896 they had incorporated a statewide federation of women’s clubs in order to better coordinate efforts. While these clubs focused on unifying the efforts of women around common causes, the majority of them remained racially and ethnically segregated in those early years of organization.

Women who were excluded from the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs on the basis of race or ethnicity formed their own clubs and federations. One of the largest of these was the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations which was founded in 1917 and affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. The Federation went through a handful of name changes during the course of its operation, but for this post I will be sticking with the abbreviation WSFCWO. The WSFCWO’s members were subdivided into different committees that focused on the following topics: constitution, peace, fine arts, business, history, arts and crafts, interracial issues, education, legislation, scholarship, race history, health and temperance, mother home and child, women in industry, music, credentials, press and publicity, and programs.

Black and white portrait photograph of an African American woman in a white lacy high-necked shirt. Her hair is piled on the top of her head, to which are attached silk flowers.

Nannie Helen Burroughs, by Rotograph Co., New York City, 1909. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46093.

One of the most prominent early members at the WSFCWO’s executive level was an Everett resident named Mrs. Jennie Samuels or Mrs. J.B. Samuels as she appeared in club records (she occasionally also appeared as Jane). Samuels was the founder of the Nannie Burroughs Study Club in Everett which was named for Nannie Helen Burroughs, an African American educator, orator, feminist, and civil rights activist. Burroughs had gained national attention by calling on Baptist women to combine their charitable works into one federated movement, providing an inspiration for African-American women’s clubs all over the country.

Jennie Samuels was clearly highly motivated to keep her Everett colleagues closely involved with the activities of the state’s Federated club women. At the 1920 WSFCWO conference, held at Everett High School and hosted by the Nannie Burroughs Study Club, attendees were welcomed with an address by Roland Hartley who at that time had already served as Everett’s Mayor and a member of the Washington State House of Representatives and would go on to be the Governor of Washington. After the welcoming ceremonies the attendees discussed the importance of civic works, different projects underway within the WSFCWO, the life of Frederick Douglass, and matters concerning child welfare. In meeting minutes the group remarked on how accommodating the high school was giving them use of the school’s kitchens in which they could prepare meals for attendees and access to all rooms and buildings on campus for meetings and lodging.

The following year, Jennie Samuels was elected the second president of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations. Her first order as president was to pursue the establishment of scholarships for children of color who wished to pursue higher education. Though she only held the post of President for four years, and the WSFCWO’s membership was largely based in Tacoma and Seattle, most of the biannual officer’s meetings during her involvement with the Federation were held in the Samuels’s home on the 2200 block of Wetmore Avenue. Club records paint a picture of the Samuels’s residence being a hub of activity not only for meetings, but also social gatherings among club women and their families from Everett and points all around the Puget Sound region. The proceedings of one of the WSFCWO’s annual conferences even included a celebration of John and Jennie’s 34th wedding anniversary as a conference after party at their Wetmore home.

When not busy with the activities of the WSFCWO, Mrs. Samuels continued to work at the local level with the Nannie Burroughs Study Club doing benevolent works within Everett. Much time was spent giving aid to those who were home-bound due to illness or old age, and looking after the needs of children living in lower income households. In addition to their charitable works, the Study Club focused heavily on the study of issues affecting African Americans in the United States – bringing in speakers, and discussing papers and other publications. By the 10th annual meeting it was noted that the Study Club was the only organization in Everett affiliated with the of the Washington State Federation of Colored Women’s Organizations, yet its members still frequently ranked at the top of Federation fundraising lists and a handful of its members were active in leadership roles.

In a cookbook published by the WSFCWO during her tenure as President, Mrs. Samuels was quoted as saying:

“Thank our God that we have something to do, whether we like it or not. Doing our duty brings out the best that is in us and will breed in us self-control, strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a score of virtues which idleness fails to give.”

 

Three lines of text written in cursive containing the names and statistics about the Samuels household. John Samuels, head of house - male, black, 46, married 23 years. born in kentucky, as were his parents. Jennie, wife, female, black 41, married for 23 years. Born in North Carolina, as were her parents. John Wesley - son, male, black, 18, single. Born in Minnesota.

Information from the 1910 United State Federal Census Records for the Samuels family. This record was accessed through Ancestry Library Edition 2.14.18 at 12:51 pm.

Though most of what we know about the life of Jennie Samuels comes from club records archived in the University of Washington Special Collections, some information about her family life can be gleaned from other sources such as newspapers, census records, military records, high school yearbooks, and Polk City Directories.

Mrs. Samuels was born on October 1, 1868 in Salem, North Carolina. Not much is known about her early life, but she remained in school until the end of her second year of high school. In 1890 she married John B. Samuels a laborer from Louisville, Kentucky who was literate but had left school in the 4th grade. The Samuels family briefly lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota where their only child John Wesley was born in September of 1891. The Samuels family moved to Everett around 1897 and by 1900 owned one of the first homes built on the 2200 block of Wetmore. John B. Samuels worked as a cook for one of the railroads when he first arrived, but soon switched to custodial work which would remain his profession until retirement. Jennie Samuels was a homemaker in addition to her numerous club activities.

Black and white portrait photograph of a young African American male in a dark suit and a high white collar.

Senior portrait of John Wesley Samuels from the 1912 Everett High School Nesika. – Everett Public Library Northwest Room Collections

John Wesley Samuels, known as Wesley or J. Wesley, graduated from Everett High School in 1912 where he had been active in the drama club and athletic club. He served overseas in World War I; before his honorable discharge he had reached the rank of Battalion Sergeant Major in the Army. In club records it was noted that he suffered from lingering health issues related to his military service. He returned to Everett, where he worked for many years as the secretary of the American Boiler and Iron Works at 700 Hewitt. He appears to have never married, and spent the remainder of his life sharing the Wetmore home with his parents.

After a long illness, Jennie Samuels passed away peacefully at her home on August 13, 1948. She had remained active in several clubs and her Methodist church until the very end of her life. Sadly J. Wesley Samuels died only six years later in a Veteran’s hospital in Vancouver, Washington; his father passed away seven months later at a hospital in Everett. The entire family is buried in a family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, not far from their beloved home and the now-bustling city center that Jennie Samuels devoted so much of her life to improving.

To learn more about the lives of people living in and around the Everett area, visit the Northwest Room at the Everett Public Library and take advantage of the phenomenal records available in the University of Washington Special Collections. The University’s Digital collections are available online at any time, but many may not know that their non-digitized records are also mostly available to the public by appointment.

Keep an eye on A Reading Life for a second post in this series celebrating Black History Month from Northwest Room Historian Mindy Van Wingen.