Women’s Words, Women’s Work: Part One

This is part one of a two-part series discussing the recently installed exhibit, “Women’s Words, Women’s Work.”  The exhibit will be on display through December 2018 and explores the social and cultural expectations that have framed women’s experiences on the Oregon State campus over 150 years.  The exhibit makes extensive use of SCARC’s manuscript, photograph and oral history collections.


Tell me a little bit about the exhibit and what provoked you to pick it as a theme?

Rachel Lilley: The impetus/catalyst for the exhibit was, I believe, OSU’s celebration of its sesquicentennial, combined with the applicability of Tiah’s and Chris’s HC 407 content. I didn’t play a role in picking the theme, but I suppose that I helped refine it (and how we would break it up).

Chris Petersen: The exhibit emerged out of an honors colloquium class that Tiah and I taught during Winter 2018 called “OSU, Women and Oral History: An Exploration of 150 Years.” The class focused on oral history methods and theory, using women’s history at OSU as its historical grounding. We uncovered and shared a lot of interesting themes over the course of the class and pretty quickly began thinking about repurposing and further exploring these themes in an exhibit. At some point we also made contact with the President’s Commission on the Status of Women who agreed to fund a student position to support the exhibit.

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: That’s a hard question to answer succinctly.

From a practical standpoint, Chris and I taught an Honors College class winter 2018 that focused on gathering OSU women’s oral histories. The final product for the students was an indexed oral history and an online portal to their interviews as well as other interviews we’d identified in the SCARC collections. The upshot is that both of us were thinking A LOT about women’s experiences at OSU, and when it turned out that we needed a spring exhibit I said, “this will be easy, we’ll just copy all the class content.” Chris has worked with me for a while, and I think he knew that I wouldn’t make it “easy.” Concurrently, during winter term we had some good opportunities to share our class plans with others, including the leadership in the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. They had plans to create an online gallery of women, so we piggybacked onto that idea and included an online component to the physical exhibit. PCOSW offered some money for a student intern position and the library expanded Rachel’s position to full-time for two months. All of a sudden, we had an actual exhibit team!

c5be2ab2e6bfd84481172c8efa7e55e9The more complicated part of the answer is that I have long been interested in women and representation, especially as it pertains to archival collections and the historical record. It’s unsurprising to many that women’s work (academic research or otherwise) often isn’t recorded in archives – for lots of reasons, but the main being that many of these women weren’t doing work that was deemed “appropriate” or “scholarly” enough to be included in an archive. It’s also the case that there is a disproportionate number of men in positions of leadership or power, so when archivists are making priority lists for “distinguished faculty” women just aren’t on that list. There are exceptions, but for the most part, other than in their role as students, the work that women have done at this university has been in clerical or staff support roles; often, that means they don’t leave behind file cabinets full of memos or research reports.

In 2013, I established the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives, an initiative that documents a VERY male dominated field. The women in these industries are called on pretty regularly to talk about “being a woman in a male dominated field,” but often not asked deeper questions about their lives or experiences. So… over the past several years, I have come to think of oral history as a powerful tool for recording the stories of these women, and I’ve found that by continuing to focus on gathering their stories in addition to the stories of the men in the industry, I talk more about gender than I have since my time as an English Lit graduate student.


What was your role in curation of the exhibit?

CP: Many of the visuals and some of the themes used in the exhibit emerged from work that I did for the honors class. I also drafted the first iterations of four of the panels, created the videos that run on a loop in both cases, and built the companion web exhibit.

TEM: I was the exhibit lead/project manager. This meant I had the 40,000 ft view of what was going on, but also knew the minutia. I was the point person for calling meetings, doing much of the initial selection, hiring and working with the intern, working with Clara on graphic design (colors, font, layout, etc), working with/checking in with Rachel on her collections research, working with Chris on the web site, working with Natalia to coordinate printing, materials prep, and designing and installing the physical exhibit.


How did “Women’s Words, Women’s Work” differ from other exhibits you have worked on in the past?

RL: The sheer scope of it. This was larger, by far, than any other exhibit I’ve worked on in the past, both physically and intellectually. I also found myself very emotionally invested in this exhibit, to a degree that I’ve never been in the past. It was both heart-breaking and disheartening at times – when we had to leave women out of the main display, or to read stories that made it clear that, though we’ve come a long way, there are so many things that remain the same.

CP: There were a lot more people involved than is usually the case. Also, we created a companion web exhibit and LibGuide, which has not been done in the past either.

Female students in an auto mechanics class, 1918

Female students in an auto mechanics class, 1918

TEM: We’re living in a time when gender relations, harassment, rights, et al, are in the national and international news regularly. The #metoo and #timesup movements have given many of us a framework within which to discuss these issues and our own experiences. And I thought it was important that we (SCARC) brought these conversations into the OSU150 commemoration year.

We had super interesting conversations as an exhibits team about issues of item selection, but also deeper conversations about things like the title and the colors (purple, yellow, white for Suffrage). “Women’s Work” carries multiple meanings for people, and I advocated for us embracing that ambiguity and pushing people to engage with what “Women’s Work” means on a symbolic and practical level. What is women’s work, what work were women allowed/banned from doing, what work just wasn’t feasible for a single mom, etc.

This exhibit felt deeply personal, both as a mid-career / mid-forties woman, but also as the mother of a teenaged daughter. I want us to have these hard conversations about intended/unintended behaviors/messages and to look deeply at how much gender inequality is STILL built into the very structures in which we exist. Not everyone who has a gender bias is a bad person, but I’m ready for us to look critically (again) at gender expectations as it pertains to roles, behaviors, abilities, voice, opportunities, etc. What are the choices we didn’t even know we had to make? What do we never think to even try?


I’m sure there was a lot of material to choose from and sift through.  How did you narrow items down to those displayed?

CP: Most of the visuals that we used for the honors class were mined from Larry’s pictorial history of OSU or from Oregon Digital sets with which I was already familiar. Many of these images were repurposed for the exhibit, though Tiah, Rachel and Natalia did a lot of digging to find more. I was not really involved with that component of the work.

Students working in the Secretarial Science lab, 1951

Students working in the Secretarial Science lab, 1951

RL: This was the most difficult part. For me, as classified staff, I had a natural bias and affinity to the “everyday” women of OSU – the women who toiled away as “secretaries” for 50 years and then went unidentified in the photos taken at their retirement parties. If it were up to me, every concourse in the library would be covered in their photos and stories. But we tried to do our best to tell the stories of both the recognized agents of change, you could say, and the lesser known/unrecognized women.

TEM: I literally had a binder full of women, printouts of every picture anyone found and loved. I carried it around with me like some sort of talisman! I did part with the binder for a few days and left it up in a staff and student space for people to note which were their favorite images. I had my favorites, but it was cool to feel like others were chosen by the group.

It also helped that I knew we could put all the images in the online gallery.

I have dreams of making a more official binder(s) to put in the gallery in the fall. We’ll be having some public events then, so I have some time to recover from the installation and start thinking about the exhibit again!

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