Students bring historical women to life
This spring, students at St. Catherine University brought history to life during a 19th century tea party. They portrayed independent women who lived during the years following the Civil War through World War I.
The tea party marked the culmination of the honors seminar course called "Women Alone in a Time of Change," an interdisciplinary course fusing American literature with American history that was co-taught by Professors Gay Herzberg and Louise Edwards-Simpson.
Women Alone in a Time of Change
The course title refers to the time of change that occurred between the late 19th century and the early 20th century — a period when the United States experienced industrialization, rapid population growth and westward expansion.
“This dynamic era created unprecedented opportunities for American women to live independently and outside of traditional marriage,” said Edwards-Simpson
, assistant professor of history. “Women now could be self-supporting and pursue higher education, careers, social reforms and artistic pursuits.”
For the project, each student was asked to research the life and work of a woman who spent a large part of her life unmarried during the Gilded Age. Students then crafted their research into short monologues, which they presented in character during a tea party on May 19.
“Basically, we invited each student to take a character we didn’t cover in class, to research her life, and then to develop a monologue,” said Herzberg, associate professor of English. “If she could speak, what would she say?”
Stirring speeches and creative costumes
Many prominent women from the past were represented at the tea party, ranging from Clara Barton, a founder of the American Red Cross who was born in 1821 (played by Abigail Gibson ’13), to Margaret Bourke White, a documentary photographer, who was born in 1904.
Some of the most stirring speeches came from Marie Zalrzewska, played by Sarah Howe '14; Mary Edwards Walker, played by Ana Zschocher '13; Victoria Woodhull, played by Mysee Chang '13; M. Carey Thomas, played by Nicole Eide '13; Nellie Bly, played by Kat Ramage '14; Georgia O’Keefe, played by Grace Dupre '11; and Margaret Bourke White, played by Caitlin Snodgrass '14.
Costumes also caught the eye as students wore hats, faux medals and nursing gear. Several students even took the costumes a step further. Rebecca Nelson ’12, for example, wore a long black dress with a white apron, cap and sleeves for sanitation, representing the old nursing uniform worn by Linda Richards, and Joyce Slaughter ’12 donned a nun’s habit worn by Mother Seraphine Ireland.
Others — including Laura Stearns ’14, Mikaela Frederick ’12, Katie LaMotte ’12, Mary Benbenek ’13, Jordan Arndt ’11, and Kristal Jameson ’13 — added to the energy by representing Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Dickinson, Carry Nation, Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller and Crystal Eastman, respectively.
Recreating feminist art
Herzberg said the tea party setting was chosen to mimic the The Dinner Party, an art installation by feminist artist Judy Chicago. The art installation at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art features 1,038 women in history, with 39 women represented by place settings around a triangular banquet table. The other 999 women are represented by the inscriptions of their names in the tiles making up the Heritage Floor, which sits below the banquet table.
While the tea party at St. Catherine University was held at a banquet table formed in the shape of a square, the students did create intricate place settings to represent the character they chose. They also donned elaborate costumes — some handcrafted — to better portray the women in their research.
“Each person had a place setting based on who she was and the time period she lived in,” said Herzberg.
Herzberg called the interdisciplinary course an “exhilarating teaching experience.” Over the course of the semester, students read classic literature, including Work by Louis May Alcott, Three Lives by Gertrude Stein, and cutting-edge historical texts such as Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago by Joanne Meyerowitz and To Believe in Women by Lillian Faderman.
The honors class tea party served as one of the final events during the Year of the Liberal Arts at St. Catherine University.
“They learned a lot, and we learned a lot,” said Professor Edwards-Simpson.