When we came inside, the table in the room was full with feminist pamphlets, books, newsletters and oral history tapes with women’s stories. The librarian, who gave us a two hour introduction to the Tamiment Library at the New York University, exclaimed every now and then how ‘cool’ this or that item was. And cool it is indeed! The NYU Tamiment collection mainly covers the topic of labour and the Left -in 2006 Communist Party of the United States donated its entire archives – and this also includes the role of women in socialism and in the labour force. Highlights include a poster of the League of Women Shoppers (Use Your Buying Power For justice!), an item from a rally in Detroit with Angela Davis, photos of women labour leaders…and also oral history tapes.
Oral History in NY
In fact, oral history was the primary reason why we were sitting in the library with a group of around 20 university staff members from all different US universities. They were participating in a summer course on ‘Women’s knowledge through oral history’, which I convened together with two colleagues from the Women’s Knowledge International Network. Knowing the richness of my ‘own’ Aletta library, I had decided to schedule a library visit during the course. The experience exceeded all my expectations and certainly also of the participants. They have oral history interviews with Gays and Lesbians in the Labour Movement, with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, and about Gender Relations in the Building Trades. Debra Bernhardt, an activist, a labor historian and an archivist who served as head of the Tamiment Library, conducted 150 oral history interviews with Workers from New York, including many women. I was itching to clean the dust off some of their less documented interviews and conduct research on all those fascinating histories!
Rosi the Riveter
The project that reminded me most of our video oral histories at Aletta E-Quality was ‘The real Rosi the Riveter project’. If you think you don’t know who Rosi the Riveter is, check out the picture next to this blog. Rosi became the emblem of the more than six million women who entered the US workforce during WWII. Many of those worked in jobs that had traditionally been defined as ‘men’s jobs’, in manufacturing of automobiles, ships, weapons etcetera. New York University’s Tamiment Library collaborated with Spargel Productions to document the stories of such working women. We watched one woman telling about her fight for equal wages. Another recounted how they tested newbies by sending them to the storage for a ‘left-handed hammer’! One woman recalled that she discussed Othello in her lunch break with her female colleagues, and that all went to see the play afterwards. Shakespeare in the factory…that’s something that only oral history can recover!
Sara de Jong, researcher Aletta E-Quality